Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Gifts in Unexpected Places

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25, 2008

Year B: The Nativity of Our Lord
Isaiah 62: 6-7, 10-12
Titus 3: 4-7
Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Gifts in Unexpected Places

So, how’s everyone’s Christmas been so far? Pretty good? Last night both services here were wonderful, despite the rainy weather.

I guess for many of us here it’s been pretty much like other Christmases. I guess most people have their own ways of doing Christmas. Some people come to church on Christmas Eve and then go home and maybe open a present or two and then it’s off to bed to wait for Santa.

Other people, I guess like a lot of us here this morning, get up early, maybe open up presents under the tree, go to church and then go off and be with families and friends. Each Christmas many of us cook and eat the same foods, we sing the same songs, and we carefully place the same ornaments on the Christmas tree.

So, of course, many of us have our Christmas traditions. You might even call them routines. And, let’s face it, most of us like our routines. We like our ways of doing things. We like things to be familiar. And that’s good, mostly.

Looking back, when I was growing up my family was pretty normal when it came to Christmas. Like most other people, we had our own traditions, our own familiar Christmas routines. One routine in particular sticks out in my memory. And it’s a routine that, looking back on it, probably drove my parents a little crazy.

Each year when my sister and I were little we would get up very, very early on Christmas morning and go to the living room to see the gifts that Santa had left for us under the tree. So each year, while it was still dark out, my sister and I would go through packages, opening up boxes and playing with our toys. This was our routine, it was familiar. My bleary-eyed parents would come downstairs and sit with us and ooh and ah at our gifts. Anybody else have a routine like this?

One year, though, for some reason my comfortable, familiar routine was changed. I’ll never forget it. Now I know, of course, we only have good children here at Grace. But, I’m sure sometimes parents here have warned kids that if they’re bad they won’t get any Christmas presents. Or maybe if they’re bad they’ll just get a bag of coal.

Now, I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but my parents used to say things like that to me! But, I never really believed it would happen, because each year, even if I hadn’t always been nice to my sister, or hadn’t cleaned up my room, or hadn’t done my homework, each year there were always gifts for me under the tree. But, I have to admit, although I didn’t think it would ever really happen, the remote possibility of no gifts for Christmas was always in the back of my mind.

Well, anyway, this one year I came downstairs in the dark hours of the early morning. Maybe my sister was still a baby, because I think I was alone. I came into the dark living room, my heart pounding with excitement. I turned on the lights. And I stood in shock and horror. There was nothing under the tree. The nightmare had come true!

What happened next is embarrassing. Since it is Christmas morning and we’re in church, let’s just say I “got sick.”

I guess my parents heard all the commotion and came downstairs to see what was going on. They took me by the shoulders, turned me a little, and showed me my gifts.

It turned out that for whatever reason this year my gifts were not in their usual place. Instead, they were just a few feet off to the side. But because, even as a little kid, I was so used to my familiar routine I had managed not to see the gifts that were waiting for me the whole time, just a little off to the side. It was like I was wearing blinders!

As a kid I learned the lesson “don’t panic, things may not be as bad as they seem.” But now as an adult looking back on that experience I realize that as much as we like familiarity, familiarity can be dangerous. Familiarity can prevent us from really seeing things. Familiarity can sometimes blind us to the gifts that we are being given in unexpected places.

The English writer from a century ago, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.” “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.”

Children can get caught up in familiar routines, but I suspect adults are much more susceptible to the illusion of familiarity. But if we really stop and reflect on it, what seems to be most familiar turns out to be the most wonderful, amazing, exciting gift.

Being wrapped up in our own familiar routines we can easily miss the gifts we are given in unexpected places.

And sometimes, like what happened to me long ago, our familiar routines get interrupted. And for many of us that’s happened this Christmas or in past Christmases. Some of us have lost beloved family members and friends. Some of us have lost jobs or worry if we will keep our jobs in the new year. For many of us anxiety and sadness have overshadowed or interrupted our familiar Christmas routines.

And, to say the least, this overshadowing or interruption can definitely be upsetting. But I believe that this overshadowing or interruption also offers us an opportunity to recover our sense of awe and wonder.

This interruption of the familiar just might make us open to receive the gifts we are being given in unexpected places.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mary is the ultimate model for us on how to recover our sense of awe and wonder. Obviously, there’s nothing familiar or routine about what’s happening to Mary. She is in the midst of the most extraordinary events. Nine months earlier an angel had greeted her with the news that, if she said yes, she would give birth to the Son of God.

And now she has received this most unlikely gift in a most unexpected place, and, on top of all that, Luke tells us, she been visited by shepherds who report an encounter with an angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host.”

And what’s Mary’s response to these extraordinary events? Luke says the people around Mary were “amazed” - which seems like a nice way of saying they all thought the shepherds were crazy. But, what’s Mary’s response? Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

For most of us here, two thousand years later, what seemed amazing to the people around Mary is all too familiar. I guess the Christmas story is the most familiar story of all.

But if we follow Mary’s example and really treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts maybe this old familiar story can come alive with awe and wonder once again.

In thinking and praying about today’s sermon, I’ve been reminded of a sermon that Lauren gave a few weeks ago. In her sermon Lauren noted that because of the economy many of us are feeling more anxious and insecure than usual. In a sense, our familiar routines have been interrupted. But, her key point was that in the future we should remember what this anxiety and insecurity feels like because that’s how most people around the world feel most of the time. Our anxiety and insecurity can make us one with the anxious and insecure people all around the world.

I found an unexpected Christmas gift in that sermon from weeks ago.

Yes, the Christmas story is the most familiar of all. Yet, if we really ponder this story in our hearts, the unexpected gift we receive on Christmas is Jesus – fully human and fully divine.

The unexpected gift that Mary pondered in her heart so long ago was that in Jesus the God of the universe experiences what it’s like to be one of us. In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to be a human being. In that helpless, stinky baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, God experiences the helplessness we all experienced as babies – the crying out for food and milk – the complete dependence on others.

In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to work with one’s hands, to have friends, to celebrate at a wedding, to give someone a hug, to laugh at a joke.

In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to weep at the death of a friend, to be afraid about the future, and to be betrayed and abandoned.

And so, just as you and I need to hold on to our current experience of anxiety and insecurity to be one with the anxious and insecure people of the world, God holds on to the experience of being human and has become one with us in Jesus.

In Jesus, God really knows what it’s like to be a human being.

And in Jesus we know what God is really like.

So, when we are celebrating and joyful we are not alone - God is right there with us and God knows exactly how we feel.

So, when we are anxious and frightened we are not alone - God is right there with us and God knows exactly how we feel.

Let’s use the opportunity of this unfamiliar Christmas. Let’s recover our sense of awe and wonder. Let’s keep our eyes open and find the gifts that God gives us – gifts that we often find in unexpected places. Let’s help one another find those gifts. And, most of all, let’s ponder in our hearts the greatest and most unexpected gift of all – the gift of Jesus.


Sunday, December 07, 2008


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 7, 2008

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Mark 1: 1-8


On this second Sunday of Advent we are reintroduced to John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark – which most scholars think is the earliest of the four gospels, and is certainly the most barebones.

Truthfully, Mark isn’t very interested in John the Baptizer, as he calls him. Mark is really only interested in telling us about the life, ministry and meaning of Jesus Christ. So, Mark begins his gospel with the seemingly simple words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This may be the beginning of the good news, but Mark is clear that the good news of Jesus Christ is what people had been awaiting for centuries. And so, in his gospel Mark immediately looks back into the Hebrew Scriptures and quotes from the prophet Isaiah. Actually, to be accurate, Mark includes verses from the Prophet Malachi and the Book of Exodus, along with Isaiah.

With a few quick quotes Mark economically reminds us that for centuries God had inspired prophets to call for repentance, and to point ahead to the Holy One who was to come.

And then Mark quickly introduces John the Baptist, not with much back story, but simply as the last in this long line of prophets: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Like so many of the prophets before him, John calls for repentance.

And like so many of the prophets before him John points ahead to the Holy One, the Messiah, who was to come. John says to the people, this baptism with water that I’m giving you is nothing compared with what the Messiah will give you – baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Now at this point, even for those of us who take Advent seriously, it’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves – to jump ahead to Christmas and the birth of the Messiah who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. After all, let’s be honest, we know what happens next. We know the rest of the story – we know Jesus has already come and lived among us. We know the birth, we know the teaching, we know the death, and we know the resurrection. We know all this. But since Advent really is a season to be mindful, to pay attention, we need to resist the temptation to skip ahead to Christmas.

So, since we’re not going to skip ahead, what might John the Baptist have to say for us today? What might John the Baptist have to say to us – to people who know the rest of the story, to people who already know Jesus, to people who have already been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit?

John’s message is as timely for us as it was for the people of the First Century who came to be baptized in the River Jordan. We are called to repentance. And we are called to live in a way that our very lives point to Jesus – the messiah who has already come and continues to live among us.

In the gospels, it’s the Greek word metanoia that is translated as repentance. But metanoia means more than just repentance, it means changing one’s mind. That’s an expression we use a lot more than repentance, isn’t it? In fact, we’ve probably cheapened it a little bit with overuse. In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard people say things like, “You know, I changed my mind and decided to buy that beautiful basket at the 10,000 Villages fair after all”?

But, when you think of it, really changing your mind is something very deep, isn’t it? To change our mind means to radically revise the way see the world, to radically reorder our priorities.

Maybe instead of “change of mind” we should say something that we don’t say quite as often, something that sounds deeper. Maybe we should say “change of heart’.

That’s what the prophets called for. That’s what John the Baptist was preaching to those people who came to him for baptism He was calling them to change their minds, to change their hearts. When they came up out of the water they were to be radically changed, to be transformed - to have a change of heart. They – and we – are called to have a change of heart so that our very lives point to Jesus, the Holy One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t know, maybe all this talk of metanoia - all this talk of a change of heart - sounds a little pie-in-the-sky. But, actually, if we allow God in to change our hearts, if we allow our lives to point to Jesus, then the consequences are very concrete and practical.

Here’s a quote attributed to Pedro Arrupe, who was the leader of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983. I think he powerfully sums up the powerful effects of metanoia, the powerful effects of a change of heart. He says:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Now, that’s metanoia, that’s a change of heart. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about out in the wilderness and that’s the message for us today. Open ourselves up to metanoia, open ourselves to a change of heart, allow our very lives to point to Jesus.

In her sermon last week, Lauren noted that the Church is counter-cultural. While the rest of society has long-since moved on to Christmas, we insist on this quiet time of prayer and mindfulness, Advent.

And if we continue to open ourselves up to change of heart then we will become more and more counter-cultural.

Let’s think about the so-called Christmas season. This is a time of year when our culture whips us into such frenzy with talk about “Black Friday” that 2,000 ordinary people could gather in the early morning hours outside a Wal-Mart on Long Island and, when the doors opened (at 5:00AM), horrifically trample a Wal-Mart employee to death.

Now, you and I may not have been waiting outside of Wal-Mart in the early morning, but, let’s be honest, most of us do get caught up in the materialistic frenzy of this “season.” That’s the message of the culture we live in: buy more, get the bargain, and don’t worry about the consequences. Just get it – and then you’ll be happy.

If we are to have metanoia, a change of heart, then we are going to be counter-cultural. There’s a group that was started about four years ago called “The Advent Conspiracy.” On their website they describe a conspiracy that stands up to our culture with four parts: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.

Now that’s counter-cultural! Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. That’s really opening ourselves up to a change of heart.

So what would an “advent conspiracy” look like around here? What would metanoia look like around here? What would a change of heart look like around here? How could we live so our lives point to Jesus?

Well, if we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, then church will be a top priority – being here for worship, inviting others to join us, giving to the church in a way that’s a real sacrifice.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, maybe instead of buying some unimaginative Christmas gift, after this service we’ll fill out one of the outreach gift certificates and give a gift to a worthy cause in honor of one of our friends or relatives – a gift far better than any sweater.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, the “Food for Friends” barrel right over there in the chapel will be overflowing week after week and Kit Cone will get tired of making the trip to Dover to deliver our donations.

If we really open up ourselves to a change of heart, then every line on our soup kitchen sign-up sheet will be filled and Marge Paul will wonder what is she going to do with all this food and all these volunteers.

That’s what a change of heart looks like.

And 2000 years ago on the banks of the River Jordan, John the Baptist called on the people to metanoia, to repent, to have a change of heart. And all these years later, you and I who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit are also called to have metanoia, to repent, to have a change of heart. We are called to make our very lives point to Jesus.

How we answer that call will decide everything.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent: A Call to Mindfulness

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 2008

Advent: A Call to Mindfulness

Recently I was interviewed by a writer from our diocesan newspaper, The Voice, for an article about the ordination process in our diocese. My experience of “the process” was generally positive, but as I reflected back, I realized how much of that time I spent thinking about the future rather than living in the moment. From the day I met with my home parish rector to talk about my sense of call to the priesthood I began a long period of nervous wondering about the future…

Would I be accepted into the process? Would I fit in at seminary? What kind of grades would I get? Would I be made a postulant and later a candidate? Would I be ordained? And lingering behind all these questions were two really big questions: Would I get a job? And if I did, where would I be working?

Eventually, of course, all those questions and more were answered. But as I think back I feel some regret because my relentlessly anxious focus on the future meant that I missed out on truly being present during those important and once in a lifetime years. Missing from my life during much of that time was a sense of mindfulness.

Few have written as effectively about mindfulness as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his teaching he has stressed the central importance of mindfulness – being aware of the miracles that occur with every breath that we take. I suspect most of us are not very good at mindfulness. Instead, we are usually thinking ahead to the next item on our to-do list. But Thich Nhat Hanh, along with many other spiritual masters, insists that we must pay attention and see the beauty in such seemingly ordinary events as eating a meal, washing dishes, taking a walk, or even simply breathing.

In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh sees the Eucharist as a powerful act of mindfulness. He writes, “The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, ‘Eat this. This is my flesh.’ He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life.”

In our society it’s a real challenge to live mindfully. For many of us, life is extremely fast-paced. We have so little time to reflect, to be mindful, or even to take a breath. And many of us who do have the time are filled with anxieties surrounding the economy, the election, the environment… And the media seem to be in the business of keeping us anxious. A while back I visited someone and one of the cable business news channels was on the TV. Hearing the frenzied reports accompanied by dramatic music, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Lately I haven’t been watching much TV, so maybe I’m more sensitive to it – but I’m pretty sure that TV is not much help if we hope to live mindfully.

Sometimes even the Church can be a challenge to living mindfully. Many of us have watched with excitement and wonder as the new parish hall has grown from an idea on paper to a concrete and steel reality. Over these months of construction and anticipation, I wonder if we have been mindful enough of the miracle of the present. At the same time, in the midst of an economic crisis there is anxiety about stewardship – will Grace Church be able to provide the same level of ministry as we have in the past? In a time of obvious uncertainty, have we been mindfully keeping an eye out for the miracles that are occurring right here and now in the present?

Fortunately, the Church also offers us many opportunities to be mindful. Our Christmas-shopping-crazy society works against it, but in a very real way, Advent is the season of mindfulness – when we are called to slow down and mindfully prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and also for the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Day.

So let’s consider Advent our special call to live more mindfully, to breathe a little slower and deeper, to keep our eyes open for the miracles all around us each day of our lives, and to open our hearts to the greatest of all gifts, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reminders to be Mindful

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 23, 2008

Year A: The Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
Matthew 25:31-46

Reminders to be Mindful

Since lately life has been really busy, I’ve been making an extra effort to live mindfully. I’ve been trying to live more in the present and not be so concerned with the future – or so concerned with the past for that matter.

I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to what’s going on around me. And I’ve been trying to notice and give thanks for the simple joys of life – a quiet dinner with Sue, a good laugh with friends and colleagues. I’ve been trying to be mindful, but, to be honest, it’s not easy.

Living a life of mindfulness – a life of really paying attention to the present moment – is not easy under the best of circumstances. And, of course, many of us are not living in the best of circumstances right now. Many of us have watched with astonishment as so much wealth seems to have evaporated. There’s a lot of anxiety about the future and probably some regret about the choices made in the past.

Anxiety about the future and regret about the past – a bad combination and not very helpful to living mindfully in the moment.

And, unfortunately, sometimes even church doesn’t help us live mindfully. Even the church is affected by the anxieties of the world – will we be able to afford all that we hope to do? What will stewardship look like this year? If we need to, where will we cut the budget?

And sometimes even the Sunday Scripture lessons don’t seem to offer much help with living mindfully. I was very glad that Dan Lawson and Tim Barrett were given the assignment last Sunday of preaching on the parable of the talents – a parable that isn’t really very clear and, in some interpretations, a parable that is downright disturbing. And, it’s a parable that, at least for me, is not much help with lessening my anxieties and living mindfully in the present.

And then today we come to the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday that we honor Christ the King.

Can “Christ the King” help us live more mindfully – to lessen our anxieties – to open our eyes to the blessings and opportunities that are all around us?

There’s some irony in the title Christ the King, isn’t there? After all, Jesus was not exactly the kind of king that the world expected in the first century – or, I guess, not even the type of king the world expects today.

Back in the First Century there were lots of ideas about the Messiah-King but one of the most popular, naturally enough, was the expectation of a king who would defeat the Romans and restore the mighty Jewish kingdom of David. Christ the King didn’t fulfill that expectation at all.

And today in the 21st Century, we still have kings. I guess most are viewed as romantic or nostalgic or tabloid fodder or just foolish and expensive holdovers from an earlier era. Have any of you been watching the series “Monarchy,” the series about the British royal family, on PBS? It’s interesting and well done and I admit to a soft spot for Queen Elizabeth – I mean, she’s been doing the same job since 1952 and shows no signs of slowing down! But I wonder how being royalty affects a person’s psyche? What’s it like having people bow to you, or curtsey or address you as “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness?” I don’t know whether it’s true but I’ve read stories that Prince Charles has someone squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush – imagine having that job! And imagine being used to that kind of luxury and service!

So, by the extravagant standard of 21st Century monarchy, Christ the King isn’t much of a king at all.

So, just what kind of king is Christ the King? Jesus lays it out very clearly in today’s gospel. Christ the King is the king who stands with those who hunger and thirst. Christ the King is the king who stands with the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King is the king who stands with the nobodies. Christ the King is the king who stands with those who are easy to ignore, those who are easy for society to throw away.

Christ the King stands so closely with the least and the lowly that when we serve them we serve him.

And the Evangelist Matthew is very clear: we’ll be judged - we’ll be held accountable - on how well we have served the poor, how much we have sacrificed for the “nobodies”, for the “disposable people”.

The Rev. James Forbes, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York (and Lauren Ackland’s preaching professor!) sums all this up with a great line, “No one gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

“No one gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

A lot of us have been going to church for a long time, yet, it’s easy for us to forget this essential truth. Especially if we’re wrapped up in our own anxieties and regrets, it’s hard to be mindful – it’s hard to see the gifts we have been given and it’s all too easy to miss the opportunities all around us to serve Christ the King by serving others.

We know that we are called to serve others. We know that we are expected to serve others. We know all this but we need to be reminded. We need reminders to be mindful.

Maybe because I’ve been trying to be particularly mindful, this week I received three powerful reminders of our call to serve others.

One of the best parts of working at Grace Church is that we have at least one service every day. And, as I’ve mentioned before, that means that we commemorate all the so-called “lesser feasts” – the days when the Church honors the great Christian women and men of the past. And if a lesser feast falls on a day when we have the Eucharist, then either Lauren or I are privileged to preach about these faithful people.

Sometimes that means I have to do a little research, like I did to get ready for Wednesday when we honored Elizabeth of Hungary. Before Wednesday I knew only one thing about Elizabeth; I knew that the College of St. Elizabeth just up the road at Convent Station is named in her honor.

I discovered that Elizabeth was born into the Hungarian royal family in 1207. So she grew up in castles and palaces. I’m not sure if there was any toothpaste or if they had toothbrushes back then – but nevertheless certainly she lived a life of great privilege and relative comfort. Yet from an early age this princess, inspired by the example of Francis of Assisi, was deeply committed to her faith and deeply committed to serving the poor and the sick.

She married Ludwig, a German prince, and her faith and service continued to deepen. In 1226, while Ludwig was away in Italy, their land was hit by floods and the plague. Elizabeth opened a hospital below their castle, and gave away much of the royal clothing and many royal possessions.

I also learned a wonderful story about Elizabeth. The story goes that one night Elizabeth gave a leper her place in the royal bed. As you might imagine, when Ludwig awoke at first he was terrified to find a leper next to him! But then, the story continues, Ludwig’s “eyes were opened” and he saw that in fact the leper was the Crucified Christ.

Elizabeth of Hungary offers a powerful example of “I was sick and you took care of me.” Elizabeth of Hungary offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

My second reminder to be mindful came on Wednesday night at Plaza Lanes, the bowling alley on Main Street. I was there with some of the Drew campus ministry students for a night of bowling that we call “EpiscoBowl”. When I got there I saw that a couple Grace Church parishioners were there, bowling in their Wednesday night league. I said hello, we talked for a few minutes and then we all got busy bowling.

A little while later I heard an announcement about the winner of a raffle, who received a $25 Stop’n Shop gift card. Since I hadn’t bought a ticket, I didn’t pay much attention.

A few minutes later one of our parishioners came over saying that her friend – not someone who goes to this church, not someone I’d ever met – was the winner and wanted to donate the gift card to the church for one someone comes by asking for food. IN this time when we’re all watching our budgets very carefully, this woman could have put the gift card to good use for herself and her family. Instead she gave it away.

I went over to say thank you and it was clear she wasn’t interested in gratitude or any attention for her kindness and generosity.

This woman at the bowling alley offers a powerful example of “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.” This woman at the bowling alley offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

One last story and one last reminder to be mindful. Last weekend we received a call here at church from a woman – not a member of the parish - who said that she had been violently abused by her husband and was trying to find a place to stay. She had tried the battered women’s shelter in Morristown but it was full. That’s a horrifying fact and something worth thinking and praying about. Then she had looked at a homeless shelter but she was afraid to stay there. She asked if there was some way that we could help her.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I told the story to Mary Lea and she suggested a parishioner who was knowledgeable about these kinds of situations – maybe she’d have some ideas. When I called her this parishioner stunned me when she said, “She can stay with me and my family.” I was stunned by the kindness, generosity and hospitality.

And that’s exactly what happened. This frightened and lost woman was given a safe, comfortable - and comforting - place to stay.

Our parishioner offers a powerful example of “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Our parishioner offers a powerful reminder to be mindful.

So, we’ve come to the end of the church year. Today we honor Christ the King – the king who stands with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Christ the King stands so close with these people that when we serve them we serve him.

And we are called to be mindful – to pay attention – and not miss the opportunities to serve that are all around us. And if we’re mindful, if we serve, then, God willing, we will all receive our letter of recommendation from the poor.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Saints: Brokenness and Second Chances

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2, 2008

All Saints’ Sunday
(Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14)
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 149

The Saints: Brokenness and Second Chances

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

For a lot of us lately life really has seemed like a great ordeal, hasn’t it? It’s interesting that there has been one constant in the current – and, thankfully, almost over – political season. In poll after poll the vast majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans and independents - have said that our country is on the wrong track. We disagree on who deserves the blame but people seem to agree that things are fundamentally broken. Our political system is broken. Our economy is broken. And our very society – the way we live together, our values, our priorities, all of it is broken.

And, although the question doesn’t come up in too many polls, I bet most people -if we’re honest with ourselves - would admit that we are broken, too.

For us Christians the brokenness of the world and our own brokenness should not come as news. Reaching all the way back to the beginnings of our tradition in Judaism there has been a clear understanding that creation, the world, is broken.

After all, what’s the story of Adam and Eve about? It’s a story that offers an explanation of an obvious fact – things have gone terribly wrong, the world is broken. We are broken.

Everyone knows the Adam and Eve story, but you might not know another creation story that’s not in the Bible but comes from Jewish mysticism.
In this myth the infinite God had to withdraw a little bit, create a little space, sort of like a womb in the heart of God’s being where the finite, physical universe could exist. This withdrawal of God is called tzimtzum. And, according to the myth, in this womb-like space there were a set of vessels designed to receive the divine light. I imagine them sparkling and looking like crystals. The myth continues that God sent out a single beam of divine light that was supposed to be contained by these vessels. But things didn’t go according to plan. The divine light was too powerful and so the vessels shattered. Everything is broken. This shattering is called shevira.

According to the myth, most of the light returned to God – but not all of it. Some of the divine light became trapped in the material world. And so the job of humanity is tikkun – the healing and restoration of creation. According to the myth, we heal this broken world by finding those divine sparks, bringing out the good that exists in everything and everyone.

I think it’s a fascinating myth. In part I think it’s fascinating because this three-part process of creation, brokenness and restoration is seen as an ongoing process. It didn’t just happen at the beginning of creation. Creation, brokenness and restoration continue right now, in our own lives, every day.

For us Christians, brokenness and the healing of brokenness is at very heart of our faith, isn’t it? We believe that God became a human being in Jesus and human beings killed him. Jesus is broken and so God knows brokenness not in some spiritual way but in flesh and blood. I think one of the most powerful parts of our liturgy is the fraction – when the priest breaks the bread and proclaims “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”

The idea is that the sound and sight of the bread cracking symbolizes Jesus’ sacrifice for us, Jesus’ brokenness on the cross. One of my seminary professors thought that we should wait for a few minutes after the fraction before continuing the service – to give us all time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice and brokenness.

But, of course, God didn’t leave it at that. God didn’t give up. God continued the work of restoration in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So we can all agree, I think, that the world is broken. And we can agree that brokenness and healing of brokenness is at the very heart of our faith.
But today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. What does brokenness and restoration have to do with the saints?

The saints are our role models. Over the centuries the saints have recognized the brokenness of creation. The saints have recognized their own brokenness. In the words of the Book of Revelation, they have lived through the “great ordeal.”
Think of two of the greatest saints from the start of Christianity: St. Peter abandoned Jesus in his greatest moment of need and denied even knowing him – denied Jesus three times. St. Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus. Yes, the saints recognize their own brokenness. Peter and Paul clearly recognized their own brokenness. But the saints don’t stop there. Instead the saints allow God to use them to restore the broken creation.

St. Irenaeus was an early saint who had a keen insight into the restoration of creation. Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyon in the Second Century, developed the idea of “recapitulation.” Following the lead of St. Paul, Irenaeus saw Jesus as the new Adam. Thanks to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we broken human beings have a second chance – a do-over.

On the J2A pilgrimage in California one of the many fun things we did was play beach volleyball. Now I know what you’re thinking and you’re right – I wasn’t very good at beach volleyball. But to get a cheap laugh each time I served and missed getting the ball over the net by a mile, I’d yell out “do over!” Everyone laughed, at least the first hundred times, but Chris Wilde and the kids never did let me have a do-over though.

But St. Irenaeus believed that in Jesus all of us broken people get a do-over. In Jesus this broken world gets a second chance.

The saints are our role models in faith. They clearly recognize the brokenness of the world and their own brokenness. They take advantage of the second chance offered by God in Jesus. The saints take advantage of the do-over offered by God. With God’s help, the saints work to restore the broken creation.

I think for us the hardest part of imitating the saints is admitting our own brokenness. Admitting that we don’t have it all together is hard to do. Most of us don’t like to show weakness or vulnerability. Most of us don’t want to admit that we are broken.

But the saints understand that it’s in admitting our own brokenness that we make just enough room for God’s grace to work in and through us.

I saw a powerful display of admitting brokenness last Friday when Sue and I went to a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. It’s a piece I like a lot and have mentioned it in other sermons before. Though, I have to admit it was a different, even more powerful, experience hearing it and seeing it for the first time as a priest.

In the beginning of the performance celebrant is an apparently joyful, faithful, “together” person – leading his people in song and prayer. Gradually over the course of the show the doubts and anxieties and demands of the people begin to wear him down. His own faith is weakened. Cracks begin to appear in his façade and finally in an incredibly dramatic moment, during the mass, he angrily throws a chalice on the floor and it shatters.

As he sits on the floor in the midst of the broken chalice and the spilled wine, in the midst his own brokenness, the celebrant sings the refrain, “How easily things get broken…”

But then something remarkable happens. The people who had driven the celebrant to despair gather around and literally and symbolically pick up the pieces – they begin the restoration. By admitting his own brokenness the celebrant made just enough room for God’s grace to work in and through him - a very important lesson for all of us.

The saints are our role models. The saints recognize the brokenness of creation. The saints recognize their own brokenness. But the saints don’t stop there. Instead the saints allow God to use them to restore the broken creation.
And that’s what you and I are called to do. We are called to recognize our own brokenness and allow God to use us to restore the broken creation. We are called not only to be like the saints. We are called to be saints.

And one of the great things about being here at Grace Church is that since we have so many baptisms we all get reminded of just how to be saints.
In the Baptismal Covenant essentially we are asked if we will be saints.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God and Christ? Will you be a saint?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you be a saint?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you be a saint?

How we answer these questions and how we live out our answers will make all the difference in allowing God to heal our own brokenness and allowing God to use us to heal the brokenness of creation.

The saints are our role models. The saints recognize the brokenness of creation. The saints recognize their own brokenness. But the saints don’t stop there. The saints allow God to use them to restore the broken creation.

We are called to be saints. We are called to pick up the broken pieces of this broken world. And if we answer the call then we will take our place with the saints – with those “who have come out of the great ordeal.” We will take our place with the saints – with those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2008

Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes

For the past week or so I have been reading Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s a good thing that Chabon is a brilliant writer because in this book he attempts to tell an improbable alternate history. In the novel, as in actual history, the State of Israel was created in the years after World War II and at least in part as a response to the Holocaust. In the novel, unlike in actual history, Israel is defeated and destroyed in 1948. After the defeat, many Jews migrate to the extremely unlikely location of Sitka, Alaska, where the American government allows them to set up a kind of colony, at least for a time. The story – described on the book jacket as “a gripping whodunit, a love story, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption” – takes place in this fictional, frigid, absurd and yet believable Jewish settlement.

Reading this amazing book I’ve been reminded of other authors who have attempted to create alternate histories. Probably the best I’ve ever read is Philip Roth’s remarkable novel, The Plot Against America. Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark that grows increasingly dismayed and fearful when Charles Lindbergh, after defeating Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, moves the United States toward an alliance with Hitler’s Germany.

Especially for us history buffs, it’s fascinating to imagine great what ifs of the past. But it’s not just historians and novelists who have pondered these kinds of questions. Scientists have also wondered about alternatives to the universe that we know. Recently PBS aired a program, “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” about the physicist Hugh Everett who back in the 1950s proposed the “Many Worlds Interpretation.” Everett’s idea was that are theoretically infinite universes in which every possibility occurs. To give a silly example, according to Everett’s theory, if one day I walk down Main Street and decide to go to On a Roll for lunch there would also be universes where I decide to go to the Nautilus, Bagel Chateau, or even McCool’s!

My understanding of quantum physics is admittedly more than a little shaky, but the “Many Worlds Interpretation” as well as novels that imagine alternative history serve as reminders of the importance and the consequences of the choices that we make. I am sure all of us can think of decisions that were crucial in determining the shape of our lives. And I am sure that all of us can imagine alternative histories, or parallel universes, where our lives turned out to be very different – for better or for worse - from the lives we are living.

I don’t know if there really is a parallel universe where I am still a high school teacher, but I can imagine an alternative history where I am in my classroom grading papers and planning classes. Instead, obviously, I chose to go to seminary, setting in motion a chain of events that have led me to serve as your curate. Although there are parts of teaching that I miss, I’m very glad that my history unfolded in a way that has brought me to Grace Church.

Stewardship season is now upon us in the midst of much economic uncertainty and anxiety. As we all pray about and reflect on our church support maybe it would be a helpful exercise to take some time to imagine an alternative history or a parallel universe without Grace Church in our lives. How different would our lives be without the solid foundation of this church? How different would our lives be without this place where we come together again and again to hear and tell our stories and to receive Jesus into our bodies and souls? I know my life would be much poorer without the gift or working and worshiping with all of you. It’s a tough time for many of us, but I can’t imagine a better history or a better universe than the one that we are sharing together here at Grace Church.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 19, 2008

Year A: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
(1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Matthew 22:15-22


Well, I don’t need to tell you it was another wild week on Wall Street. The image of the market as rollercoaster has been so overused and yet it seems like the best metaphor for the nauseating ride that we’ve all been on. And, meanwhile, the presidential campaign has entered what feels like its 400th week…

For a lot of us it’s a pretty bleak and frightening time. In her sermon last Sunday Lauren admitted that in the midst of the anxiety in the world it was a challenge to find the good news in the lessons that she had to deal with – the Israelites worshipping the golden calf and Jesus’ parable of someone being tossed out of the wedding banquet because he didn’t have the correct robe. I sat over there listening to her sermon, listening to her find the good news, and I gave a deep sigh of relief that she was preaching and I wasn’t.

Then I looked ahead to today’s gospel: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The King James Version of this verse is the one everybody knows, though, right? It’s probably one of Jesus’ best-known and most widely interpreted sayings: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

That’s just great. As we ride the economic rollercoaster and as we enter the last weeks of the presidential campaign we have the gospel lesson about taxes – just what everyone wants to hear today!

Well, let’s start by putting this passage into context. Over the past few Sundays as we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Matthew, the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment has been really heating up. Two weeks ago we heard Matthew quote Jesus as telling the Pharisees and the chief priests: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Ouch. Pretty harsh.

And last week’s wedding banquet parable was directly aimed against the religious establishment that had over and over rejected the prophets and now was rejecting Jesus, the Son of God.

But today it’s time for the Pharisees to respond. Unlike what we’ve heard the past couple of weeks, here Matthew pretty much sticks with Mark and Luke’s version of this story. The Pharisees present Jesus with a question that is designed to get him in trouble. The Pharisees are playing a game of gotcha with Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

We all know that talking about taxes can put you on thin ice. We’ve certainly seen that in the current election campaign haven’t we? But in First Century Palestine taxation was an extremely touchy subject. The Romans imposed three different taxes. First there was a land tax which was what it sounds like – a tax on the produce of the land. Second was the customs tax – an often corrupt tax collected through tolls and ports. And finally there was the head tax or the poll tax. Each adult male and maybe each adult female was taxed probably one denarius, or one day’s wage, a year.

Most Jews hated paying these taxes because, well, no one likes to pay taxes, but there was also notorious corruption involved, and they served as a reminder that Israel was ruled by a foreign power and they had to use coins the bore the image of the emperor.

So the Pharisees think they have set up Jesus. If Jesus says it is unlawful to pay the tax he becomes the enemy of the Romans and their local allies. If Jesus says it is lawful then he becomes the enemy of the zealous and patriotic Jews who hate Roman rule.

Instead, of course, Jesus avoids the trap and says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

This is the saying of Jesus that launched a million stewardship sermons. As I read commentary after commentary I found that this verse has been interpreted to mean everything from Christians must absolutely obey the state to Christians do not need to pay taxes to the government. Go figure.

As I’ve prayed and thought about this passage I’ve come to the conclusion that in the end it’s not about taxes. The taxes are beside the point. It’s not about taxes for Matthew who mostly is telling this story to show Jesus outfoxing the Pharisees. And it’s not about taxes for us, either.

If we are going to get any meaning out of this long-age game of gotcha, it’s not going to be in determining whether we should pay taxes or determining how much we should give to the church or other worthy causes.

If we are going to get any meaning out of this passage it will be in figuring out what it means for us here and now to render unto Caesar and what it means for us here and now to render unto God.

The meaning for us today is to be at least as careful about our obligation to God as we are about our obligation to Caesar – to be at least as careful about our spiritual obligations as we are to our obligations to the material, the physical, the dollars and cents.

And how can we be careful about our spiritual and material obligations? The answer came to me when I fell for an old joke the other day.

True story: later this week Sue and I are going to a concert at Carnegie Hall. And so the other day, out of the blue Sue asked me, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Without missing a beat, I started to say, “Well, I was thinking we could take the train from Madison and uh…”

When I saw Sue start to laugh I finally got the old joke. The right answer to the question how do you get to Carnegie Hall is…practice!

That’s the meaning of this passage for us today. It’s about the rendering. It’s about the giving. It’s about the doing. It’s about our practices. Not practices in the sense of rehearsal, but practices in the sense of doing, taking action.

In her book Practicing Our Faith the author Dorothy Bass defines practices as “those shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life.”

Practices are “those shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life.”

How do we address our basic needs? How do we give to the emperor and how do we give to God? We do that through specific actions, through specific practices.

We all are learning more about the importance of good financial practices….It seems like as a country maybe we haven’t been as careful as we should have been about our financial practices and now we’ve gotten ourselves into some big trouble. But now many of us are paying a lot more attention to our financial practices these days, aren’t we?

I know that Sue and I don’t eat out as much as we did and when we do it’s very obvious that restaurants are nowhere near as busy as they were a year ago. We are changing our practices.

It might be my imagination but when I’m on line at checkout in Shop Rite it seems like more and more people are handing over a lot of coupons to the cashier. We are changing our practices.

When I started thinking about this idea about the importance of practices – both material and spiritual practices - I asked one of the Men’s Breakfast financial whizzes to come up with a list of specific financial practices that people might consider during this difficult time. He began by tellingme that ignoring the situation, no matter how frightening, won’t make things better. Then he said, “There may be steps that you ought to consider taking now. If so, it’s better to take them now rather than ending up having to say at some future time, “If only I had…”

So what’s first on the list of dealing with the financial crisis? Act. Figure out our financial practices.

We know the importance of financial practices; we know how to render unto "Caesar." But maybe we don’t know or maybe it’s easy for us to forget the importance of spiritual practices; how to render unto God.

So what might be some of these spiritual practices that we can use to give to God the things that are God’s?

One of the most important practices is being right here – praising God in church each Sunday. And there’s the practice of setting aside even just a few moments a day for personal prayer. In the book that I mentioned, Dorothy Bass includes some other practices. She talks about the practice of hospitality. There’s a chapter on the practice of discernment - how does our faith shape the decisions we make? She includes a chapter on the practice of forgiveness and one on the practice of taking care of our bodies because they are gifts from God.

I am sure we could make a list of many practices, many ways that we can give to God the things that are God’s.

Long ago Jesus outsmarted the Pharisees by telling them they had obligations to the emperor and to God. And through the Scripture Jesus is telling us the same thing today – and reminding us that we fulfill those obligations not by sitting around and thinking about them but through practices.

So, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. How do we render unto Caesar and render unto God? Practice. How do we meet our material and spiritual obligations? Practice.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Men's Ministry

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 2008

Men’s Ministry

In Christian magazines and books there has been a good deal of ink spilled over the issue of men in church – or, more accurately, the troubling lack of men in church. Probably the best known book about this subject has the provocative title Why Men Hate Going to Church. The author, David Morrow, offers some sobering statistics on his website For example, on Sunday the typical congregation is 61% women and 39% men. And then there’s this: “More than 90 percent of American men believe in God, and five out of six call themselves Christians. But only two out of six attend church on a given Sunday. The average man accepts the reality of Jesus Christ, but fails to see any value in going to church.” And finally Morrow claims that fewer than 10% of American congregations are able to support “vibrant” men’s ministries.

In many ways Grace Church is an exception to the bleak picture painted by Morrow and others. As you know, many men regularly attend church and are often very active in all sorts of ministries from singing in the choir to serving as a youth leader to maintaining our grounds and buildings. We are very fortunate to have many men who give so much to the church and the wider community. However, since I think our distinctively men’s ministries can be more “vibrant, I want to remind you of what is already available and to begin thinking about future possibilities.

First, I want to invite all the men of Grace Church to our Men’s Breakfast, which assembles every Friday morning at 7:00 at the Bagel Chateau on Main Street. Eliot Knight, Bruce Rudin and I are the most regular attendees but others stop by from time to time. This weekly get-together has been a real highlight of my time at Grace – low-key, relaxed, agenda-free and often a lot of fun. The conversation ranges from the church to the economy to what’s going on at work and at home. If a Friday morning stop at the Bagel Chateau works with your schedule, I hope you will join us.

Second, I hope more of the men of Grace will consider joining the Grace Church Men’s Book Group, which meets monthly. In recent months the group has read and discussed The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, and The Beekeepers Apprentice by Laurie King. Ask Eliot Knight, Bruce Rudin, Steve Hauge or Jim Van Leuven for more information.

Finally, in recent months the newly reconstituted Grace Church Men’s Group has met twice – first at Surrey Lane and then at Bruce Rudin’s home. Both of these casual gatherings were well-attended and gave many of us a chance to meet and talk together for the first time. I learned that, partly because Grace is a fairly large church, many of us do not really know one another. I also learned that there is interest among at least some of the men in having a retreat – something that once was very popular but has not happened in the past couple of years.

We will be having our third meeting of the Men’s Group at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 10, at my place. Once again there will be snacks, drinks and conversation, but this time we will talk a while about some of our concerns, think about other ways we could serve Grace Church and the wider community and begin to plan a men’s retreat. Considering the stress and strain that many of us are under in these uncertain times, I think getting away together for even a short time of prayer and rest would be worthwhile for many of us.

Let me know what you think and I hope to see many of the men of Grace Church on the 10th.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can God Trust Us?

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 28, 2008

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A - Proper 21
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 25:1-8
(Philippians 2:1-13)
Matthew 21:23-32

Can God Trust Us?

Now that a new television season has begun all the returning shows have been reminding us what happened last season. You’ve seen this, right? They start with one of the stars saying something like “Previously on Boston Legal.”

Sometimes I think we should do that in church. If you a miss a Sunday or two it’s easy to lose the thread of the Bible lessons that we read each week. It’s sort of like watching an episode of a TV show without having seen the previous episodes. I think that today’s Old Testament lesson of Moses striking the rock and water gushing forth calls for a little background, so here we go…

“Previously in Exodus…”

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God for help. God selected the unlikely Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom. Against all odds, and with some dramatic help from God, the Israelites escaped from slavery and start making their way to freedom. But, their problems were just beginning. Out in the desert they began to run out of food and began to complain to Moses and to lose faith in God. But God came through for the Israelites once again – giving them manna – this mysterious bread-like food that appeared all around them in the desert.

Which brings us to today’s episode of Exodus.

Last week the Israelites lost faith in God and Moses because there was no food to eat. This week they lose faith because there is no water to drink.

Now, it’s totally reasonable to be concerned about food and water when you’re out in the middle of the desert. But, the point of these stories is that the Israelites just can’t bring themselves to trust God, no matter how many times God comes through for them. Over and over God proves to be trustworthy. What will it take for people to trust God? The Passover wasn’t enough. The parting of the Red Sea wasn’t enough. The gift of manna – this bread from heaven – wasn’t enough. Today’s episode of Moses striking the rock with his staff and bringing forth water won’t be enough. After all that’s happened at the end of today’s passage the Israelites still ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” What will it take for people to trust God?

Well, these stories of a lack of trust in God are building to next week’s episode when God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses. Most of us are familiar with the rules contained in the Ten Commandments – but far more important than the individual rules is the idea behind the Commandments – the idea of Covenant.

In the Ten Commandments God once again makes a covenant with the people. Actually, in the Bible God has done this twice before – first with Noah and Abraham, but God does it in a dramatic and definitive way on Mt. Sinai. God says I am your God and you are my people. God says to the Israelites we have a covenant – what the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines as a bond of trust and love. God says, do you finally get it? You can trust me. We have a covenant – we have a bond of trust and love.

Which brings us to the New Testament lesson from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is now in Jerusalem – the religious and political center of Israel. Jesus’ conflict with the religious establishment is intensifying. Obviously the “chief priests and the elders” are threatened by Jesus’ ministry – by his teaching and his power. And they had been earlier threatened by John the Baptist, too. The “chief priests and the elders” are threatened by John and Jesus because of their grassroots ministry. And they reject John and Jesus because they are operating outside of official channels. The “chief priests and elders” are unable to see God’s power working through John and Jesus.

The “chief priests and the elders” fail to trust God. They fail to trust that God is still at work in the world, often working through the unlikeliest of people and doing more than we can ask or imagine. The chief priests and the elders could see the power of God in John’s ministry but rather than putting their trust in God, these religious leaders close their hearts and minds.

And Jesus calls them on it, doesn’t he? Notice Jesus doesn’t tell the chief priests and the elders that they’ve missed the boat entirely, but he gives them the shocking news that the prostitutes and the tax collectors – the outcasts of society – were going into the Kingdom of God ahead of them.

Over and over the Bible tells the story of God’s trustworthiness. In our own lives we may have experienced God’s trustworthiness. And yet, it’s still hard for us to trust isn’t it?

It’s no news to anyone here that we are living in very difficult and frightening times. We have our Men’s Breakfast on Friday mornings and besides me most of the guys who come to the breakfast know a lot about finance. But, they’re nice to me – they speak slowly and try to explain what they’re talking about. Lately it’s been pretty bleak. Some days after the breakfast, instead of coming to work, I’m tempted to go back home and dive under the covers.

It is a time of anxiety. And yet as people of faith we know God’s trustworthiness. Trusting God doesn’t mean that there won’t be suffering and there won’t be loss. But we can trust that God is suffering along with us and that ultimately nothing is ever lost to God.

And for us Christians one of the most important signs of God’s trustworthiness is baptism. Later this morning we’ll be baptizing six (!) people. They will be initiated into the Church. The prayer book notes, “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

This bond of trust and love between God and us can never be broken – no matter what we do or don’t do. This bond – this covenant – between God and us is forever.

But things work both ways in the Baptismal Covenant. God promises to be with us always – to be completely trustworthy. And we make some promises of our own. So, I guess the question is not can we trust God, but can God trust us?

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Are we going to try to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ. Are we going to try to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Are we going to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

And in the Baptismal Covenant we promise with God’s help to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. Are we going to keep that promise? Can God trust us?

Will we try to keep our promises ow will we be like the second son in Jesus’ parable who says yes to his father, but does nothing?

Over and over, in good times and in bad times, God has proven to be trustworthy. The Israelites of long ago learned about God’s trustworthiness as they drank water in the desert. We learn about God’s trustworthiness in the water of baptism – when God forms an unbreakable, indissoluble bond with us. We can trust God. Can God trust us?


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mystics in the World

Drew University: Craig Chapel
September 17, 2008
The Feast of Hildegard of Bingen

Sirach 43:1-2,6-7,9-12,27-28
John 3:16-21
Psalm 104: 25-34

Mystics in the World

One of the great joys and privileges of serving as a priest down the street at Grace Episcopal Church is that, unusually for an Episcopal church, we have at least one service every day. This means I get to preach a lot and often I get to preach on what we call the lesser feasts – the days in the Episcopal calendar when we honor some of the great men and women of our Christian heritage.

I like to think of this task as part of my continuing education. Sometimes the lesser feast honors someone very familiar such as Augustine of Hippo or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But other times the lesser feast honors someone not very well known (at least to me) such as Bernard Mizeki or Thomas Gallaudet, to mention just two recent examples. When faced with preaching about people like that, it’s time to dust off those books from seminary and get busy continuing my education.

But I think it’s safe to say that out of all the great women and men honored on our church calendar, only one has made it to the Billboard charts. Only one has her name on the wall of the HMV store in midtown Manhattan, alongside other illustrious musicians such as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Only one had her music featured in the hit movie A Beautiful Mind. Only one has five or six different CDs of her music in the bin at Barnes and Noble on Route 10 in Morris Plains. And that one is the person we honor today, the remarkable Hildegard of Bingen.

That’s quite a lot of fame for a woman who was born 1098 in the Rhineland Valley. Apparently from a very early age Hildegard began having mystical experiences. Conveniently enough as the tenth child in her family she was tithed to the church – perhaps something to consider during your next stewardship campaign!

Eventually she and other women formed a convent and later Hildegard will found other convents. Her visions continued but Hildegard was reluctant to share them with others until at the age of 43 a voice told her to “See and speak! Hear and write!” And so she compiled descriptions of her visions along with her own interpretations in three books.

Then, as now, the institutional church was skeptical of those claiming to have mystical experiences, but Hildegard had a powerful patron in Bernard of Clairvaux who it just so happens had the ear of the pope. So Hildegard’s mystical writings received an imprimatur from the highest level and Hildegard and her work became famous across Europe.

She conducted four preaching tours and offered her advice and direction to the political and religious leaders of the day. She practiced medicine with a special focus on women’s health. She wrote about natural science and philosophy. In her spare time she wrote a liturgical drama, The Play of Virtues, in which women sing the parts of the virtues and the lone man in the cast plays the part of …the devil, who is unable to sing. And of course she composed large amounts of otherworldly and gorgeous music.

After her death in 1179 there was a movement to canonize her, using the newly created procedure in the Roman church to make new saints, but in Hildegard’s case it never quite came together. And then this remarkable woman was forgotten.

Until the 1970s when thanks to the new interest in the great Christian women, Hildegard and especially her music was rediscovered and celebrated.

Which is wonderful. But, I wonder about Hildegard the mystic. I wonder what we make of the vast Christian mystical heritage. For many centuries now, of course, many Christians have grown increasingly uneasy with mystical experience. How often have we heard someone – maybe even ourselves – say something like “If St. Francis were alive today he’d be institutionalized or be heavily medicated”? And the same might be said of Hildegard. I read that Oliver Sacks chalked up Hildegard’s mystical experiences as the result of migraines.

Is that good enough for us Christians in the 21st Century? Are we willing to dismiss the mystical as a symptom or manifestation of mental illness? Are we willing to leave mystical experience to the New Agers? Are we willing to conclude that God does not speak through mystical experience? Is mysticism embarrassing for Christians in the 21st Century? Are we open to the possibility of having mystical experiences? Have we had mystical experiences?

Those of you who have been ordained or are preparing for ordination may have received the advice that if you believe you’ve had mystical experiences do not under any circumstances tell your Commission of Ministry or whoever the gatekeepers are in your denomination. And that’s unfortunate, but probably good advice. The truth is once we start talking about mystical experiences all sorts of red flags go up.

So I won’t ask for a show of hands about how many of us have had some kind of mystical experience. But I do remember a sermon given by John Koenig, New Testament professor at General Seminary and longtime member of the seminary’s admissions committee. In his sermon he noted that a very large number of applicants to the seminary described experiences – maybe not quite on the level of Hildegard’s visions – but nonetheless experiences that could be described as mystical. Professor Koenig concluded that God speaks to us in this way more often than we might think.

Maybe the key way to recover our confidence in Christian mysticism is to recall that mystical experiences are not given for our enjoyment or edification, but instead they call us to action right here in the flesh and blood world in which we live. The Jesuit scholar Robert J. Eagan notes that mystical experiences are liberating – they remind us that things do not have to be this way.

Maybe we can recover our confidence in Christian mysticism by reminding ourselves that being a mystic doesn’t mean going off on a mountain forever and pondering but instead it means working to translate the mystical vision into a physical reality, in the manner of the 20th Century mystic Martin Luther King.

And sometimes even mystics themselves need to learn the role they are called to play in the world. I remember seeing a photograph of Thomas Merton taken on the day he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane. In the photo he’s laughingly holding up a newspaper, apparently thinking that he was saying farewell to the world described in its pages. Instead, of course, God was going to nudge Merton the cloistered Trappist monk into an even more public role in the world.

In the Christian tradition mysticism calls us to action in the world. And this connection is very clear in the visions of Hildegard. Her visions, for all their mystery and power, usually have a very concrete, here and now message.

For example, there is Hildegard’s vision of God enthroned. She writes: “I saw a great mountain of the color of iron, and enthroned on it One of such great glory that it blinded my sight.” And then God speaks to Hildegard and says: “O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice. Unlock for them the enclosure of mysteries that they, timid as they are, conceal in a hidden and fruitless field. Burst forth into a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation."

And then the voice of God concludes: “Arise, therefore, cry out and tell what is shown to you by the strong power of God’s help, for He who rules every creature in might and kindness floods those who fear him and serve him in sweet love and humility with the glory of heavenly enlightenment and leads those who persevere in the ways of justice to the joys of the eternal vision.”

The mystics – and you and I – are called to arise and cry out. Mystical experiences are not given for our own enjoyment but rather to give us the strength to speak out, to stand up for the oppressed, to speak the truth to power.

And that’s exactly what the great Christian mystics have done. Think of Paul and his powerful transforming mystical experience of the Risen Lord – which gave him the strength and courage to live a life filled with setbacks and adversity. And Hildegard bravely involved herself in the world – challenging those in authority; a medieval woman emboldened by her mystical experience.

And that’s what we’re called to do. We “Professional Christians” have a special role to play in a society that leaves no time for contemplation and is dismissive of mysticism. We are called to be mystics in the world. When I was ordained a deacon the bishop said something that has continued to haunt and challenge me. He said “We pay you to pray.” “We pay you to pray.”

That pay isn’t just for my own personal spiritual growth. That pay is for me, for us, to translate our spiritual – mystical – experiences into the flesh and blood world, right here and now.

And isn’t that the message of today’s gospel? This very familiar passage sums up the message of the very mystical fourth gospel. “For God so loved the world…” The flesh and blood, right here and now world. “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God’s love for the world – for this world - is expressed in the flesh and blood life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the mystical Jesus who had a vision of the Kingdom of God and who lived and proclaimed that vision.

Today we give thanks for Hildegard whose mysticism gave her the confidence and the courage to live and proclaim her Christian faith. May we be open to the possibility that God continues to speak. May we make the time and establish the quiet so we might have our own mystical experiences. And may we follow Hildegard’s example and in our own way, in our own time and place, be mystics in the world.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

God's Justice

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 7, 2008

Year A: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
(Romans 13:8-14)
Matthew 18:15-20

God’s Justice

With both the Democratic and Republican conventions behind us, we’re now moving into the heart of the presidential campaign season. In reality the campaign, of course, has been going on for just about four years now (although it seems longer even than that!) but now many of us are starting to really pay attention and to consider who will be our next president and vice president.

And maybe I’m naïve, but I really thought this campaign was going to be different than those in the past. The two presidential candidates have repeatedly pledged to run campaigns that focus on the serious issues facing our nation rather than launching – or encouraging - attacks on one another’s character and personality. Now it seems like those pledges weren’t worth very much.

Each election cycle it seems to me that we never get to talk about the really big issues facing our country. Maybe these issues are just too complicated or too controversial. Maybe it’s because these issues just can’t be boiled down to a catchy slogan or sound byte. Maybe we the people just aren’t very interested in these issues.

One of the issues I wish we would talk about during this election campaign – or any election campaign - is justice.

Over the years whenever I’ve spoken with a lawyer or a police officer they’ve usually thought that our justice system was seriously broken. They often had different ideas about what makes it broken – and how to fix it – but they agreed that things have gone very seriously wrong.

I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about the growth of the so-called prison industrial complex – how in some parts of the country the only growth industry is thanks to increasing incarceration. But the truth is unless we’re directly affected by the justice system it’s easy for us to ignore it – to think it’s out there somewhere and doesn’t have anything to do with us.

But I find the statistics shocking and alarming. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

The U.S has 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation; more even than China with its much larger population and repressive government.

If you count only adults, one out of every 100 Americans is locked up.

In terms of executions, we’re fifth worldwide – in the rogues’ gallery behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

A New York Times article in April talked to American and foreign experts on crime and law and summarized their explanations for this high incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racism, the war on drugs, “the American temperament,” and the lack of a social safety net. And some also pointed out that in many places judges are elected and so feel the need get public support by being tough.

I don’t know what to make of all of this. I am sure many of us here today can and do reasonably disagree about what’s wrong with our system and how to improve it. But, we’re not even having the conversation. I checked the McCain and Obama websites and both contained statements on a laundry list of issues, but neither directly addressed justice.

And this isn’t just about John McCain and Barack Obama. Justice isn’t just about national statistics. Justice isn’t just about the “justice system.” What about us? What’s our “justice system”? What’s our justice? What do we have to say and do about justice or the injustice right here in our community?

A couple of weeks ago I went with Grace Church parishioners to volunteer at the soup kitchen just up the road in Morristown. On that summer day we served 162 people – right here in prosperous Morris County! And my sense was that a large percentage of the guests belonged to the working poor. In some cases it was clear that they were day laborers who do backbreaking manual labor and yet are paid so little. What do we have to say and do about that injustice? What’s our justice?

And what about justice in our own lives? How do we treat people who wrong us? Are we quick to punish or are we quick to forgive? Do we hold tight to our grudges or do we let them go? What’s our justice?

Our presidential candidates may not have anything to say about justice, and we might not have much to say about justice, but today’s lessons from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew make it clear that God has a lot to say about justice.

The lesson from Exodus tells the story of Passover. It’s a very ancient and bloody story and scholars think it has its roots in very early harvest festivals that over time the people of Israel came to associate with their liberation from Egypt. And of course Passover remains a deeply meaningful, central event for the Jewish people.

I’d suggest that the story of Passover continues to have meaning not just because of ancient tradition but because it tells us something very important about God. Passover tells us that for God justice means being on the side of the weak, the poor and the oppressed. The Egyptians were the powerful ones. The Egyptians were the “winners.” The Egyptians were the oppressors. Yet, God took the side of the weak Israelite slaves and led them to liberation.

And in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel Jesus offers instruction on how to deal with a member of the community who has sinned. But before we go any further we need to put this little section from Matthew into context.

Just before it, Jesus asks the disciples, “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went away?” We might very well answer no to that question, but Jesus makes it clear that our just God does not give up on the one who has gotten away. The God of justice does not throw anyone away. God continues to reach out to us no matter what we do, no matter how lost we are. As Jesus concludes, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

And next week in church we’ll read the section just after today’s gospel passage where Peter asks Jesus the familiar question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says in reply, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In the gospel Jesus doesn’t ignore sin but Jesus makes it clear that God doesn’t throw anyone away and God offers forgiveness after forgiveness. How about us? What’s our justice?

And in today’s gospel passage Jesus offers a practical plan to put God’s justice into action when a member of the community sins – talk one on one. If that doesn’t work bring some witnesses. If that doesn’t work bring the issue before the whole church. And if the offender still doesn’t listen then Jesus says “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

This at first glance sounds pretty harsh. It sounds like this offender should be thrown away, tossed out, excommunicated from the church.

Except that Jesus has just told us that the God of justice never gives up on anyone. And Jesus is about to tell Peter and to tell us to forgive seventy-seven times – to forgive an infinite amount of times. And, if we stop and think about it, it’s exactly the outcasts – the Gentiles and the tax collectors – in other words, the sinners – with whom Jesus seems to spend a lot of time.

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus isn’t saying give up on this person or throw this person out. Jesus is saying be like me, keep at it, keep trying, keep reaching out to this person. The God of justice never gives up on us, never stops forgiving, never stops reaching out to us.

In thinking about God’s justice I’m reminded of Sister Helen Prejean. Some of you may know her from her book Dead Man Walking or the movie based on her book, where Sister Helen was played by Susan Sarandon. A couple of years ago she visited St. Peter’s Prep and spoke passionately against the death penalty. Two things she said that night, and has said many times elsewhere, have stuck with me.

First, “We are not the worst moments of our lives.”

And second, “We are worth more than the worst act we commit.”

That’s what God’s justice looks like. God is on the side of the weak, the poor and the oppressed. God continues to reach out to us no matter how lost we get. And God offers infinite forgiveness.

That’s God’s justice.

What’s our justice?


Monday, September 01, 2008

How Do We Do Ministry?

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 2008

How Do We Do Ministry?

In my last column I shared with you some of the responses I received from Grace parishioners to the question, “What is ministry?” Those answers gave good insight into the rich and diverse understanding of ministry that exists in our church. The follow-up question was, “How do we do ministry here at Grace Church?” I like that this question is more ambiguous and open to interpretation – people were able to write about the kinds of ministry that go on here at Grace while also being free to offer an evaluation of the work that we do. The responses I received were heartening, challenging and moving.

One very active parishioner offered this nuanced assessment: “Part of ministry is doing your absolute best, to the glory of God, even when the outside world sends the message that your ministry is irrelevant or too hard. Grace is an exceptional parish in that we are driven by our desire to please God and answer the call to our many ministries.” She continued with this challenging observation: “The biggest challenge Grace faces is our wealth. Although we do not ‘rest’, we do not push our boundaries, in terms of the kinds of programs we try or the community involvement we explore. I think ministry, at its core, demands risk and sacrifice. As a parish, we could grow in our faith by considering those ideas more mindfully – and more often.”

Another parishioner who has been in a leadership position at Grace offered a very moving description of how he was supported during an illness by both lay people and members of the clergy. He noted that this kind of ministry never gets included in the Annual Report, yet “…it may be one of the most important things we do in terms of ministry that more or less just happens because of what we have has a community.” He also identified two key challenges for Grace Church in terms of ministry. First, there is the task of helping visitors become part of the congregation. Second, there is the perhaps more difficult challenge of helping those already in the church to deepen their involvement.

A longtime parishioner offered a less than positive view of our corporate ministry “…our most usual form of ministry is ‘checkbook ministry’. We give away money that isn’t needed to make ourselves comfortable. One of the reasons why the Recycling Ministry and the Community Soup Kitchen are as popular as they are probably is that they aren’t checkbook ministries.”

The issue of “checkbook ministry” is worth thinking about. The truth is that many ministries in our community, including the Community Soup Kitchen and the Recycling Ministry, benefit from the financial support of Grace Church. If all we as a church ever do is write out checks and let other people do the physical labor then something has gone very wrong in our understanding of ministry and sacrifice. However, there are some of us who, perhaps because of age or family and work responsibilities, find it very difficult to give time and/or physical labor to our ministries. No more than any other part of our lives, when it comes to ministry we need to examine our consciences and ask if we are serving to the best of our ability.

A younger member of the congregation gave an upbeat view of ministry at Grace. She wrote, “But HOW MUCH there is to do that allow opportunities for people to serve in so many ways. There are ministries that serve our parish and allow us to continue to do what we do. Others that serve the community. Many that allow both to happen.” She concluded, “But most of the ministries here seem to fill multiple needs – the needs of those serving and those being served.”

Obviously ministry is a complex and important topic and there are wide-ranging perspectives here at Grace. Defining ministry and reflecting on how we do ministry is important work for all of us. One thing is certain – ministry is not a choice between “inreach” and outreach. I would suggest that the idea that we should take care of others instead of taking care of ourselves is a false and ultimately destructive choice. In the long run, only a healthy person or a healthy community is strong enough to serve others. We all know people who have burned out because they didn’t take proper care of their own needs. The same can also be true of the church.

Soon the new parish hall will offer us new opportunities for ministry. So this is a great time to ask – and answer – important questions about ministry. What is ministry? How do we do ministry at Grace Church? How can we get more people more deeply involved in ministry? What do we think about so-called “checkbook ministries”? How can we fit taking good care of the Grace community with offering ministry to the wider world?

I hope you are interested in these questions If you are, then please join us on Sunday, September 28, when I will lead the first in a series of adult seminars on ministry. Hope to see you there.